The Merchant of Venice has always been one of Shakespeare's most problematic works, combining broad comedy with social drama – and antisemitism to boot – and it's not always a comfortable fit. First of all, it's the story of Shylock, a vengeful Jewish moneylender who focuses his wrath on Antonio, a kind-hearted merchant who inadvertently defaults on a loan when his ships are lost at sea. On the other hand, it's also the story of several pairings of young lovers who have a grand old time wooing each other, dancing and cross-dressing in traditional Shakespearean subplots.
In the new production at Theatre Banshee in Burbank, director Sean Branney seeks to ameliorate this schizophrenia by playing up the comedic aspects of the work. This technique proves mostly effective, as there is a great deal of comedy in the piece and the cast is up to the task. It's only when the tale of the merchant and moneylender comes back for another installment that the production lurches toward the melodramatic. But if one can roll with the shifts in tone, there is much to enjoy in this staging.
Barry Lynch provides an intense presence as the moneylender, and Time Winters' Antonio is also a sobering character, which often puts them at odds with the carefree exuberance of the other characters. Daniel Kaemon makes for a romantic Bassanio, but he seems to be pulled in two different directions, at one moment solemnly fretting about his dear friend Antonio's fate and the next larking about with Kristen Kollender's high-spirited Portia.
Among the standouts in the cast are Ericka Winterrowd, who is great fun as Nerissa, Portia's lady-in-waiting, and Tim Stafford's Launcelot. Also impressive are Anthony Mark Barrow as Portia's exotic would-be suitor, Morocco, and Brett Mack's Gratiano.
Arthur MacBride's set is simple yet effective, and Reber Clark's full-bodied score is a lovely surprise. There's even an exuberant, well-choreographed (by Alice Ryan) dance number in the first act.
To Branney's credit, he doesn't equivocate when it comes to the depiction of Shylock and he doesn't try to explain away the racial hatred that was rife at the time. He's a character of the time and, as the director mentions in his production notes: "It's entirely likely that Shakespeare never met a Jew in his lifetime, and Shylock conveniently met [his] needs for a villain in the play."
The Merchant of Venice plays at Theatre Banshee, 3435 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., until May 13. Reservations can be made online or by calling (818) 846-5323.
Photo: Donald Agnelli © 2012 Theatre Banshee